Frozen II Plays It Safe

If you’re a Frozen fan – whether a four year-old girl or a forty year-old man – I’m probably not the best person to go to understand if you’ll enjoy Frozen II. The first film was actually my first published review for another publication, and I was …well, “whelmed” is probably the word. I certainly didn’t anticipate the frenzied popularity of the film, nor its astounding box office grosses. So if I’m a little underwhelmed by Frozen II – coming some six years after the original, with the same directing team of Jennifer Lee and Chris Buck – you’ll have to understand that in that context (along with my general antipathy towards musicals).

With that in mind, let’s break down what does and doesn’t work about Frozen II.

From a purely economic perspective, it’s undeniably successful. A Frozen sequel is intended to make money. Not just through tickets – which surely it’ll sell in droves! – but through music and merchandising. That partly explains the structure of the film, which tends to prioritise musical numbers and costume changes for Elsa (Idina Menzel) over pesky necessities like story or characterisation. There’s no song here that’s going to be as huge as “Let It Go”, but how could there be? I was generally unmoved by the music – no big surprise here – but I did really enjoy Kristoff’s (Jonathan Groff’s) big number, “Lost in the Woods”, a mischievous and frequently hilarious parody of ‘80s power ballads.

For a juggernaut like Disney, Frozen II also represents an opportunity to extend and solidify its brand. Frozen was very much an old-fashioned Disney movie carefully modernised for contemporary audiences, but it attracted (largely justified) criticism for its overwhelming whiteness, particularl in its representation of Scandinavia’s indigenous people, the Sámi. Rather than dodge these criticisms, Disney have responded admirably. Through collaborating with Sámi people, diversifying the character designs and crafting a narrative centred on colonialism, Lee and Buck ensure that their follow-up film is immune to charges of racism or the like. It’s at once well-intended and a transparent attempt to protect the brand; such is mass media in the 21st century.

Once you recognise this is what they’re doing, though, the thinness of the colonialist narrative and the intended progressiveness of its politics become as transparent as ice. The film begins with a bedside story told to an infant Elsa and Anna (Kristen Bell): a story of an enchanted forest, and a pact between the Arendelle and Sámi people that somehow went south. It’s a while before the screenplay reveals that the Arendellians were responsible for shit going sideways, but if you don’t see this revelation coming five minutes in, you haven’t seen many movies.

In the spirit of Thor Ragnarok, the screenplay is making an earnest – and, again, well-intended – attempt to grapple with the ramifications of colonialism through the confines of a very commercial genre. That’s good! But rather than really grapple with other beloved characters’ complicity with said colonialism or the consequences that they’re obliged to bear …. the screenplay slides into an under-cooked happy ending. That’s bad.

To unpack the issues with this, I need to be a tad more specific with spoilers. So if you want to go in unspoiled, maybe skip over the next paragraph.

The first problem with Frozen II’s themes of colonialism is that it refuses to indict any of the characters we know and love. The real culprit is Elsa and Anna’s fearsome grandfather, someone we know nothing about and have no connection to. A more impactful twist would’ve been to reveal the villainy of their seemingly-lovely parents – akin to the Hans twist in Frozen – but instead we’re kept at a generational remove. Similarly, the film refuses to accept the consequences of unpicking the legacy of colonialism; when Anna destroys a harmful dam (I admit, I dig that a Disney film concludes with an act of ecological terrorism), Elsa’s on board to ensure the ensuing wave of water doesn’t do any damage to the kingdom of Arendelle, sitting downstream. At least the queer subtext from the first film is allowed to sit untouched; while Elsa doesn’t do anything as dangerous as, say, kiss a girl, Frozen II does build upon her crisis of identity and her discomfort in polite society.

But Frozen II’s refusal to really commit to the consequences of its colonialist premise have a flow-on effect to the narrative. It might not bother toddlers that Frozen II really has no conflict or antagonist or forward momentum, but the storyline ends up being nowhere near as compelling as the previous film. Part of that is just how Disney films work – when you have a ‘happily ever after’ ending, your perfectly gracious and generous characters subsequently limit your plotting – but there’s really just a slip of a story here. I imagine Disney is hoping critics like myself disregard that to praise the film’s politics and musical numbers.

And maybe critics would be right to do that. In the end, Frozen II isn’t trying to craft a timeless story or captivate its audience with complex characters. It’s trying to make Disney money, to benefit their brand. Judged through that lens, Frozen II is an unquestioned success. If you were walking into the movie with the expectation of something more, though? Let it go.

2.5 stars

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